Book Review: Kind of Cruel, Sophie Hannah

Kind of Cruel, by Sophie Hannah

(Hodder & Stoughton) 384pp

[out in hardback – paperback due 12 August 2012]

Kind of Cruel is the seventh novel in Sophie Hannah’s police procedural series featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer.

‘Kind. Cruel. Kind of Cruel.’

Just five words, apparently random, meaningless words but they provide the connecting thread that holds together this taut, intelligent psychological thriller.

The words are scribbled on a discarded piece of paper, buried amongst Charlie Zailer’s private notebook and, crucially, spoken aloud by Amber Hewerdine to her hypnotherapist, Ginny Saxon, in the middle of their first session. The words mean nothing to Amber who is seeking help with insomnia, but they are a vital clue for the police team currently investigating the brutal murder of Katharine Allen; a woman whom Amber claims she has never met.

‘But we’ve walked ourselves around Little Orchard how many times? And we can’t find the page with ‘Kind, Cruel, Kind of Cruel’ written on it. We can’t bring up a memory of having seen it in any of the bedrooms or bathrooms, in either of the two lounges, in the kitchen, dining room, games room or library. ‘

The story takes place over 10 days in 2010 but the roots go back further in time, to family relationships and early friendships. In an inventive narration that unpicks the idea of story itself, Hannah offers different angles and voices. We hear Amber’s view, Ginny Saxon’s expert opinion and an all-seeing eye who takes us into the heart of Waterhouse and Zailer’s complicated love-life.

It takes a bit of time to work out who is telling us the story. Chapters are spliced between a third person shifting narrator, different first person narrators and lengthy interior monologues.

‘What is the difference between a story and a legend? In which category does Little Orchard belong? I’d say it falls squarely into the “legend” category. It has a name, for one thing; Little Orchard. Those two words suggest more than a house in Surrey. They’re enough to call to mind a complex sequence of events and an even more multi-layered collection of opinions and emotions. Wherever we have a mental shortcut phrase for a story from our past, that provides a clue that the story has become a legend.’

‘The room filled with the sound of everyone breathing too loudly. If Simon had been asked to guess with his eyes closed, he’d have said twenty people hiding from a predator. Or leaping off the top of a mountain. There was something enlivening about refusing to be intimidated by an objectively intimidating person. Simon was surfing the crest of an adrenaline wave; he hoped it wasn’t affecting his judgement.’

It’s a taught, intensely satisfying read. It’s not essential to the enjoyment factor or following the storyline that you’ve read the previous six novels in the series. Part of the joy of this novel is marvelling how Hannah drip-feeds their relationship into the story in a way that feels natural and unobtrusive. Her storytelling is skilful and controlled. If this is your first introduction to Charlie and Simon, I guarantee you’ll go in search of the rest.